Category Archives: Ira Levin

Dr. X Will Build a Creature*

DollyAs I post this, today would have been Mary Shelley’s 219th birthday. As you’ll know, her most famous work, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, addresses an ethical question that’s challenged us for a very long time. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it? It’s not surprising this question would have come up at the time Shelley wrote this novel. Electricity had recently been channeled for human use, and it frightened a lot of people. And that wasn’t the only scientific development of the day, by any means. To many people, it must have seemed that it was all moving too quickly, in very dangerous directions. So Shelley’s cautionary tale makes sense given the era.

But it’s by no means the only story that addresses that question. We see it come up in crime fiction quite a lot, and it raises interesting ethical issues. And those issues can add a solid layer of suspense to a plot, and invite readers to stay engaged.

Agatha Christie’s play, Black Coffee, revolves around a potentially very dangerous scientific advance. Famous physicist Sir Claude Amory has developed a formula for an atomic bomb (the play was written in 1930, before this possibility became a reality). As you can imagine, the formula is worth a great deal of money, and Sir Claude has come to believe that someone in his family wants to steal it for that reason. And as we get to know the different people in his household, it’s not hard to see why he feels that way. He asks Hercule Poirot to travel to his country home at Abbot’s Cleve to find out who the guilty party is. Poirot and Captain Hastings make the trip, but by the time they arrive, it’s too late: Sir Claude has been poisoned, and the formula’s been stolen. The play itself isn’t regarded as one of Christie’s best works. However, it does raise the question of what we should do with the knowledge of how to make such a devastating weapon. Sir Claude wanted to provide it to the government in order to protect the country, but the question could be asked: should the information be available? It’s a difficult dilemma that US President Harry Truman faced some fifteen years later.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we are introduced to Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children, Pete and Kim. The Eberharts make the move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Housing’s less expensive, taxes are lower, schools are good, and it’s the perfect small town to raise a family. At first, things do seem to go well, and everyone settles in. Not long after the family’s arrival, Joanna makes a new friend, Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. And in any case, they’ve just moved, and the idea of moving again is out of the question. But then, Joanna learns to her dismay that Bobbie was right. Something sinister is going on in the town. Levin doesn’t specifically address the question of whether we should do something just because we can. But the novel does show what can happen when the wrong people have access to frighteningly successful technology.

The question of whether we should do something just because we can is explored in a slightly different way in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Smilla Jaspersen is a half-Inuit Greenlander who’s now living in a Copenhagen apartment building. She’s terribly upset when ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building, dies from what looks like a tragic accidental fall from the roof of the building. But Smilla isn’t so sure it was an accident. The evidence she sees in the snow suggests something else, and she starts to ask questions. The trail eventually leads back to Greenland, so Smilla gets a place as a maid/cleaner on an expedition ship that’s going there. That’s where she discovers the truth about Isaiah’s death. Some readers have said that the second half of this novel is a little more like a science fiction story than a murder mystery. Certainly it raises the question that a lot of science fiction does: should every scientific investigation be pursued? Are there some things we should leave alone?

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode is the first of his trilogy featuring Stockholm County CID detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In it, a series of brutal murders are committed, all by people who work in some capacity for the justice system. What’s even stranger is that none of the killers has any idea why the murder was committed. Gröhn gets assigned to the case, and soon finds that there are plenty of people, some in very high places, who don’t want him to solve the murders. In fact, his career nearly derails because of it. And in the end, we learn that one important element of this story (and of the trilogy, really) is the question of scientific developments and technology, and where they may lead. It’s a look at the issue within the thriller context.

Of course, lots of other thrillers do a similar thing. Robin Cook’s thrillers, for instance, often raise the question of medical ethics. Novels such as Godplayer, Coma, and Chromosome 6 explore some of what is possible in medicine and science. And they ask whether it’s in our interest to take those fields as far they can go.

Mary Shelley explored that issue in Frankenstein. Nearly 200 years later, we’re still wrestling with it. Every time we make a scientific, medical or technological advance, we are also faced with the question of whether that advance does more harm than good. It’s not an easy issue, which makes it a really intriguing element in a crime story.

ps. The ‘photo is of Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, and one of her offspring.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Science Fiction Double Feature.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Mary Shelley, Peter Høeg, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk

I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

Deepest FearsBoth Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.

It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.

For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.

Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.

Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.

We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).

One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.

Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.

It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.

These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.

What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Spy.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice LaPlante, Ellery Queen, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, Mike Befeler, Paddy Richardson, S.J. Watson, Sarah Ward, Stephen King, Wendy James, William McIlvanney

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

It’s Like a Dream Come True*

Dreams and WishesMost of us have dreams and wishes. A lot of times they don’t come true, but that doesn’t stop people dreaming. After all, some dreams do happen. But an old saying goes,

‘Be careful what you wish for…’

and that’s not bad advice. Sometimes what seems like a dream come true doesn’t turn out to be that way at all.

There’s certainly plenty of that plot point in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Discovering that one’s dream job/home/partner is anything but can add solid suspense to a story. And that’s to say nothing of the motive it can provide for all sorts of things.

We see that, for instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. Pawnbroker Jabez Wilson responded to an unusual job advertisement in a local newspaper, placed by the League of Red-Headed Men. The main qualification seemed to be that the successful applicant must have red hair. Wilson was told that the money was reasonable and the work easy, and he is certainly red-haired; so he decided to apply. Much to his surprise, he was selected and soon began his work. His duties were simple: to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All went well at first, and seemed like a perfect way to add to his income. Everything changed one day, though, when he came to the league’s offices, only to find a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. Wilson wants to know what happened to the league, so he asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. As it turns out, the league was a cover for a nefarious plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who poisoned Marie Marisot, a French moneylender whose business name was Madame Giselle. She was poisoned during a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. And it turns out that more than one of them had a motive. Madame Giselle’s business worked in an unusual way. She would lend money to people after she’d found out damaging or at least compromising, information about them. That information served as collateral, to be held over those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay what they owed. Here’s what one of her clients has to say about it:

‘‘But later she lent you more?’ [Poirot]
‘Yes, as much as I wanted. It seemed like a miracle at the time.’’

That dream come true turns out to be a nightmare for this client, whose debt soon ran so high that it was impossible to pay it back. That was when Madame Giselle threatened to reveal some very uncomfortable truths…

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives begins as Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the town seems like a dream come true – exactly what they’ve wanted. The taxes are low, the schools are good, the new house is just what they hoped for, and the children are settling in. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that there is something very wrong going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe Bobbie. But little by little, she comes to see that Bobbie was probably right. And the closer she gets to the truth of what’s going on, the more nightmarish it gets.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to Mallory and Kate Lawson. Mallory’s become ‘burned out’ as a teacher/headmaster, and started to pull away from his family. Kate loves her husband, but can’t deny the strain in their family. Then, they get news that seems like a dream come true. Mallory’s Aunt Carey has died (of natural causes) and left her nephew and his family a large fortune. All they need to do is move into the home she left behind, and ensure that her longtime friend and companion Benny Frayle has a permanent home there. That’s little enough to ask, so the Lawsons take up their new residence and get to know Benny. Soon, they’ll be able to start up their own publishing company, something they’ve always wanted. Now it seems that they’ll be able to live out their dream. It all starts to go sour, though, when the Lawson’s daughter Polly decides to get out of major financial mess by taking her share of the money sooner than her great-aunt’s will stipulates. Her plan backfires badly, which is trouble enough. Then, the family’s financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed. On the surface of it, it looks like an accident. But Benny suspects that it was murder, and she determines that the police should investigate. Finally, after another death, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the matter closely, and discover who’s behind the deaths. It just goes to show that inheriting a lot of money doesn’t solve everything.

Librarian Israel Armstrong gets a wish to come true in Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books. He wants a career as a librarian, but so far, he’s only been able to find a job as a bookseller’s assistant. It’s a ‘nowhere’ job, and not what he wants. So when he sees an advertisement for a librarian’s position at the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland, he applies. To his happy surprise, he gets the job and travels from his home in North London to Ireland. He’s expecting that this will be the stepping-stone to a fine career that may lead to a very important position at a university library or even the British Library. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. For one thing, when he arrives, Armstrong finds out that he’s actually been hired to drive the local mobile library, which is a rattletrap bus. The district has very little money, but is required by law to make library books available all over the area. This is the solution they’ve found, and for the urban-dwelling Armstrong, that’s bad enough. His living conditions (a makeshift bed in a chicken coop) just make matters worse. Then he discovers that the books he’s supposed to make available have disappeared. He’s going to have to find them if he’s going to keep his job and reputation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread of that novel, television journalist Rebecca Thorne works on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. His stock in trade is luring investors with lush advertisements that feature luxurious retirement properties. He then hosts parties where he sells those potential investors on his properties and gets them to buy into that ‘dream retirement.’ But there’ve been several allegations that Graham is dishonest. When Thorne visits one of his properties, she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more, she talks with several people who’ve been bilked out of their money and had to severely retrench their lifestyles because of it.

So maybe there is some truth that old saying about being careful what you wish for. These are just a few examples. I haven’t even touched the numerous novels in which a dream marriage turns nightmarish – too easy. Over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s Peg.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Ian Sansom, Ira Levin, Paddy Richardson

He’s Adept at Adaptation*

AdaptingWe all have to adapt to new circumstances. If you get a new job, you need to learn the way your new employer does things. When you move to a new place, you have to find out where the library, the grocery store and the banks are. You also need to learn the local culture and fit in, if you want to settle in. The fact is, humans are a social species, so most of us want to be part of a group. The way to do that is…adapt.

Some adaptation makes a lot of sense. New employees need to learn company policies. Moving in with a new partner or spouse means that both parties have to adapt if the relationship is going to be successful. But how far does adaptation go before it means giving up too much? It’s not always an easy question, and crime fiction makes that clear. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to add lots more than I could.

Some adaptations aren’t really all that difficult. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet Jane Grey. She’s a hairdresser’s assistant in an upmarket London salon. She isn’t what you’d call poor, but she’s certainly not well-off. When she has a very unexpected win in a lottery, Jane decides to have a taste of ‘the good life.’ She takes a holiday at Le Pinet, as many of her clients have done. It’s not the fantasy trip it might have seemed, as she has quite a losing streak. But Jane is practical, and never really expected to spend the rest of her life in the lap of luxury. She does have to make some adaptations, so as to mix effectively with those who can go to Le Pinet whenever they want:

‘Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up, and hair were beyond reproach.’

The efforts that Jane goes to don’t cost her that much. But they do get her involved in a murder investigation when a fellow passenger is murdered on the flight back from France to London. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Adaptation (and lack thereof) takes on a more deadly cast in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croydon is an up-and-coming bank official who is neat, quiet, and utterly respectable in every way. He’s always led a rather staid life, and as he moves up the bank’s proverbial ladder, he makes sure to only hire people who, like him, are completely respectable, preferably quiet, and with no hint of scandal anywhere in their families. Then one day, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. When they first meet, she strikes him as quiet and respectable, just as he is. After a tasteful amount of time, they begin seeing each other seriously. Finally they’re married. That’s when Horace begins to see that Althea is not the person he thought he’d married. From his point of view, she is not a meticulous enough housekeeper, she has sloppy habits (she even shops without a list!) and is too ebullient for good taste. He keeps hoping she’ll adapt if he ‘corrects’ her, but she doesn’t. Then one day, she destroys a set of ciphers he was trying to work. They’re his passion, so this pushes him too far. Now Horace decides there’s really only one way to solve his problem. In this story we might very well ask, ‘who didn’t adapt?’

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart move with their two children from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re looking forward to more space, lower taxes, and good schooling for the children. From the very first, Joanna finds it a bit difficult to adapt. She’s a semi-professional photographer and a feminist who’s now living in a town where all of the women seem preoccupied by their homes and taking care of their families. In one scene, for instance, she’s in the supermarket, and notices that,
…they even fill their carts neatly!’

She tries to adapt, but finds it difficult to be,

‘…deeply concerned about whether pink soap pads are better than blue ones or vice versa…’

After a short time, she makes a friend in Bobbie Markowe, who shares Joanna’s frustrations. Neither of them wants to make the adaptations that it seems they’re expected to make. And that has consequences for both.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney, and the two fall in love. Bill’s sister Lora, a Pasadena teacher, is not at all impressed with Alice, and becomes concerned for her brother. But even she understands that it might just be a bit of jealousy on her part. So she doesn’t interfere when Bill and Alice get married. Alice soon settles into married life in the suburbs, and adapts very quickly. She becomes the social leader among their friends, and Lora tries to be friendly with her, mostly for Bill’s sake. But Lora wonders just how much Alice has adapted. The more she learns about Alice’s past, the more she wonders just who Alice really is. As she finds out, Lora is repelled, but at the same time drawn in, by Alice’s world. Then there’s a murder, and a good chance that Alice might be mixed up in it. So Lora starts asking questions, mostly (as she tells herself) to protect her brother. That choice turns out to have real consequences for everyone.

The question of how much you give up of yourself when you adapt comes up in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives. PI Lena Jones and her business partner Jimmy Sisiwan investigate the murder of Solomon Lord, leader of a very reclusive polygamist sect living on a compound called Purity. The members of the community are not willing to talk to ‘outsiders,’ so it’s decided that Jones will go undercover as a new member of the community. To do so, she has to make a lot of adaptations. It’s not just a matter of dressing in a particular way, either. Everyone’s activities are circumscribed, even non-verbals such as eye contact. Every new member has to make those adaptations, and they can be difficult. Jones does discover who killed the victim; she also uncovers other very dark secrets at Purity. But doing so requires almost more adaptation than she finds possible.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badellas, which introduces readers to Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who move from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. The family finds it a challenge to make the adaptations they have to make to fit in in their new home; there are cultural differences, language differences, and food differences. Matters aren’t made any easier by the very high stakes involved.  Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against the group. Now he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, with new names and identities, and many adjustments they have to make. And when word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey, life gets even more complicated for them…

Adapting is often challenging, especially when it involves major adjustments. And those changes can be highly stressful. But they are part of life for a lot of people. And they can make for interesting plot points in a novel.


ps. There is little better adapted for life in the semi-arid climate where I live than a cactus. Unless it’s a lizard, but they’re harder to photograph…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Digital Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Talmage Powell, Tonino Benacquista